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Connecting with the Masters

Two very good reasons to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library, other than the beautiful new building, are the exhibits Drawing Connections: Baselitz, Kelly, Penone, Rockburne, and the Old Masters and Painted with Words: Vincent van Gogh's Letters to Émile Bernard.

With such an amazing collection that rarely gets to be seen, the Morgan Library, under the direction of their new curator of contemporary drawings, Isabelle Dervaux, is trying to change that by giving contemporary artists full access to the vaults in order to find comparisons between their own work and that of the old masters. This has become a tradition of sorts for museums, as the Maryland Historical Society once did with the exhibit, Mining the Museum.

In this instance the Morgan invited Georg Baselitz, Ellsworth Kelly, Giuseppe Penone, and Dorothea Rockburne to choose, and it’s quite a nice exhibit, although I was a bit star-struck standing in front of the old masters. Would I love to do this!

In Baselitz’s case, he was after something that was foreign to him, a sensuousness and grace. He found that in the work of Florentine artist Parmigianino’s Man Standing Beside a Plinth on Which He Rests a Book. Displayed next to Baselitz’s work A New Type, they seemingly could not be more different but they relate by their flatness of form and overall flow of line.

Kelly's clean, spare lines, like his sculptures, found a perfect match with one of his choices, a Matisse self-portrait, while Penone's conceptual, nature-based work fittingly chose a complex landscape drawing attributed to Pieter Bruegel, Mountain Landscape with a River, Village and Castle. Ms. Rockburne, whose work over the years has explored the possibilities of folded and altered papers (think origami descending a staircase), made one of her connections to a gridded drawing, Man Climbing into a Boat, by Tintoretto, shown above. With an amazing collection spanning some ten thousand drawings and prints, here's to more treasure hunting at the Morgan. Drawing Connections is up until January 6th.

Just across the hall is a true testament to the hand-written letter in the exhibit Painted with Words. Between 1887 and 1889, van Gogh and Émile Bernard exchanged very frank and sincere correspondence about their struggles and successes with their art. This is the first time the 20 letters have been shown, and they are quite impressive -- van Gogh's hand-written letters! -- most with sketches and notations of whatever they were working through at the time. This does not work well with e-mail.

Along with the letters are some 20 paintings, drawings, and watercolors to fill out the exhibit. Painted with Words is also up through January 6th. More images and content on my Flickr site.

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